The lights are on
Mark of the Ninja, a game from the creators of Shank and Don't Starve, brought to the PC by Microsoft (instead of Halo 3, because "reasons" obviously), is a peculiar game to say the least. It wants you to take it seriously as a both a stealth game and as a homage to old school ninja movies, much like how Shank was a homage to old school Rambo style action movies. How well it does at either is... arguable at best, I'm afraid.
This review is for the PC version of the game.
Mark of the Ninja is a 2D stealth/platformer. On the former, Mark of the Ninja is excellent if but for some control issues. Stealth takedowns require you precisely move your mouse in one direction otherwise doing a poor kill. That is, if you're uncreative or have nothing but the basics to go with. If you're creative and have the option -- you can have them walk back in terror onto breaking bridges, drop explosive traps on their heads, unleash a horde of angry bugs to devour them, or stab them with a dart that turns them psychotic and makes them commit suicide after killing everyone around them. To say the guys and gals at Klei Entertainment are the slightest bit sadistic is an understatement, but thankfully it provides for a very entertaining game... or should I say, a very entertaining New Game Plus. Yes, you cannot unlock everything your first time through -- primarily because, you don't get access to more than half of your upgrades until you're more than half way through the game, and some lose their use (such as faster lock picking) only a level or two before you can finally unlock them. You can maximize unlocks by redoing levels until you've mastered them and can get a 9/9 upgrade points, but the lack of a level select means New Game Plus is the only means of even potentially seeing what the game has to offer.This includes additional gear and new suits that give you modified skillsets and rules to play with. You only unlock most of them for completing three of one type of side goal though, so be sure to hit the Tab button to check what things you need to pull off specific to the level.
This requires the controls are working properly, though. Klei had the sensibility to script different actions to different buttons, allowing for precise control on the keyboard. Except for the fact that it swaps what button does what almost every time you get near an interactive object. One minute, the E button is to pick up dead guards. Now it's for hiding behind pots! And don't think the on-screen prompt is the one you intended unless NOTHING else is near the one you are touching or aiming at. Line of sight issues with mouse aiming also hinder your ability to aim, and inconsistencies with when you can fire something without opening a wall/ceiling/floor grate or a door become a serious irritation as things go on. These issues carry over to the platforming.
Mark of the Ninja fancies itself to take the Super Meat Boy crown, apparently, as most of its secondary challenges and a few tense sections are built around ultra-precise platforming. While not the most masochistic of challenges at times, I more than once was left thinking "so the only way you expect me to do this is by dying and doing trial and error?" There are also times when these sequences, especially the side challenges, where there's a puzzle aspect. The puzzles were easy to figure out, usually clear if not on the first try, then on the second try. The problem would be that I'd die ten times, not because I didn't understand the puzzle, but because either making one single mistake broke the sequence and either the puzzle would lock up and leave me having to restart again or I was a millisecond to slow (or the in-game animation was a millisecond to slow, which is more often the case). These, like the control mess ups, are more frustration getting in the way of solid stealth mechanics. When not in an in-depth challenge, platforming is usually far more fluid and intuitive, but the second you've got to dance around ten lasers and a moving crate, all hell breaks loose. This still isn't the low point of Mark of the Ninja though.
If you think things are looking bad now, just wait till we get to the "story".
The game's pitiful attempts at storytelling are well placed. Every cutscene is beautifully animated, like a lost set of reels from Samurai Jack. Your companion's voice acting is superb, in comparison to everyone else (you play an inexplicably silent protagonist). But OH MY GOSH! The writing! This is some of the most bland narrative I've ever had the displeasure to experience. I'm the guy who can remember most of the characters names in Fuse or from the audio diaries in Bioshock, and I can barely remember the protagonist's mentor's name. I know it starts with an H and ends in something like "umi", that's about it. You go unnamed, your companion never get a name, there's some old guy, there's some PMC guy you never get a really good reason for why you're after other than he roughed up your dojo a bit, and his lacky who looks like he's being set up as your nemesis but then you actually kill him more easily than some of the enemy variants that come down the road. Seriously, the plot basically is "THE DOJO IS UNDER ATTACK! BUT NOT REALLY? MAYBE? WE COULDN'T DECIDE HOW TO MOTIVATE YOU SO SCREW IT, YEAH, IT'S TOTALLY UNDER ATTACK!" then it's "GET REVENGE! BECAUSE SENDING ONE GUY IN TO GET REVENGE ON A SINGULAR ENEMY FOR NO GOOD REASONS SOUNDS LIKE GOOD USE OF A LIMITED-TIME-USE NINJA!" then it's "GET REVENGE AGAIN DUE TO A PLOT TWIST THAT YOU PROBABLY ALREADY CALLED TWO HOURS BEFORE!" and then finally it's "HA! YOU THOUGHT -THAT- WAS THE TWIST? NO! THIS IS THE TWIST! NOW ENJOY AN OBLIGATORY SPEC OPS: THE LINE STYLE MENTAL BREAKDOWN AND FINALE THAT LEAVES YOU WITH A MORAL CHOICE THAT IMPACTS NOTHING!"
No seriously, that's it. That is the entire story. There's some dialogue in between there and some pointless exposition via scrolls you find around the levels, but really, there's nothing to speak of outside of the final ten minutes, and one if you choose the ONE ending, not the OTHER one. It also uses the plot shifts to send you across the globe in less than a day, then be back at your dojo a day later. Also, is it just a rule for 2D Microsoft published games or do all of them have you arrive at some ancient ruined city with an old man requiring your help by -accident-? Because it's twice in a row now with this and Deadlight and if this happens again in Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet... I'm calling hijinks.
There is still one last knock against this game, and that is its sad, sad attempts at also being something of an "action" game when you slip up. Arkham Asylum, this is not. There's even a suit of armor that ups your armor and encourages you go less stealthy, more brutal, but there's just one problem. The protagonist has no idea that he can use his sword for anything besides stealth/stun kills. Seriously. You're fighting men with guns and all you can do in direct conflict is punch them in the face. This can take nearly twenty hits just for regular enemies, and it only knocks them down for a second, and you have to do the same number of hits again to get them down again while praying no other guards come nearby. If you're fighting two guards, just give up and restart the checkpoint.
I realize not a lot of people are going to agree with this, but I value more than one aspect of a game as reason to give a game high praise. Yes, as a stealth game, when it's working right, Mark of the Ninja is fantastic. It truly could be the new gold standard, if not for the constant oversights, issues, and ham-wrapped-fist they call a narrative. It just falls apart in some areas, and it really feels like one of those games they expect you to play through at least twice to truly enjoy it -- but not everyone has that kind of time, or that kind of patience. Do yourself a favor, skip the cutscenes, and just enjoy the stealth. The scoring system gives plenty of incentives to avoid detection and dispatch enemies (or even slip past them without a single kill), and the side objectives for playing a certain way are far more applicable than similar side objectives in Assassin's Creed and Batman: Arkham City.
If only the good elements were all that were present, I'd heartily give a 10/10, but with badly inserted masochistic platforming, barely functional frontal assault alternatives suggested but never truly accomplished, and that story... ugh... I just can't give this anything more than a 7.25/10.
Cheers,Paradigm the Fallen
You can be as deep as the ocean and as graceful as a swan, but without a true sense of self beyond that, what is there to speak of? Personality and individuality are not the same thing.
Trivia: This review was one of the many I've updated to stick to a standard. I apologize for it not being held to the same regard as some of my earlier ones.
Mark of the Ninja is available on Xbox Live Arcade and Steam for $14.99 dollars.
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